Millennium Post

This literary crusader craved change

‘Gnar mari tor motorgarir, Gnar mari tor shopping mall-er, Bujhbi jokhon ashbe tere, Nangto mojur shaban koler’ (Damn your cars and shopping malls, When the naked labourer of the soap factory will rise up in anger, You’ll be fixed.)

These lines of poetry are from a novel written by a person who died last month. At a time when much of the subcontinent takes car sales figures as its symbol of prosperity and shopping mall footfalls as its lifestyle-boosting symbol, these lines sound particularly discordant in the development party that has been going on for many full-moon nights now. The author was a professional party pooper. In fact he wished pox on such parties and parties that supported such parties.

 There is a particular kind of phenomenon that leaves changed once you encounter it. The change may not be the same for everyone – it typically isn’t. One’s life experiences continually create and recreate the vessel one calls the ‘personal’. Nabarun Bhattacharya, the Bengali author and poet who died on 31 July 2014 was one such. He was 66 when he died. His literary career bloomed late and was relatively short. And in that what he produced and the readers he changed have ensured he will not be forgotten. His death brought a spontaneous outpouring of sadness from many. Huge halls were filled in his memorial meetings that were termed as meetings of solidarity and not of condolence.

This peculiar and special role of the author as the locus of social conscience and critique still has significant currency in Bengal. The patronage styles of the TMC and the CPI(M) is a testament to that. Nabarun not only shunned these two major parties till the very end, he used the choicest expletives to expose the brutality of the political system that these parties have helped nurture. He was published and immortalised by small independent publishing houses till the very end. This is not easy in Bengal for any author, especially if one shuns the media behemoth that actually claims to be one of the poles of political power in West Bengal.

Nabarun’s dead body was covered in the red hammer and sickle flag – not from any specific party, in sharp contrast to the competitive necrophilia that big parties have indulged in, so as to co-opt the appeal to the dead one. In Nabarun’s case, neither the CPM nor the TMC or the BJP or the Indira Congress for that matter claimed him to be one of their own. He was too dangerous in life and could be unpredictable in death. He could explode like the dead body of Herbert Sarkar, one of the many unforgettable fictional characters he had created.

This specific one had won him a Sahitya Academy puraskar. Near the red flag on his dead body was the black flag of anarchists. Almost universally misunderstood, many associate his literary works with a flavor of anti-authoritarian libertarian socialism with a special emphasis on the creed of the deed. They don’t make them like him nowadays. For the sake of the world and exiled, impolite, dangerous sensitivities, I hope that the world is pregnant with people like him.

 Born to author and activist Mahashweta Debi and theatre personality and actor Bijon Bhattacharya, Nabarun grew up with his father after Mahashweta Debi left the father-son duo to live alone when the child was in his teens. When I was in Shahbag, Dhaka in early 2013 during the historic protest movement, I saw a famous line from one of Nabarun’s poems being used as a slogan in a poster - Ei Mrityu Upotyoka Aamar Desh Na (This Valley of Death Is Not My Country). His fans span the Bengals and beyond, as evidenced from the outpouring of grief and solidarity from Bangladesh. To me, his greatest intervention was the invention of beings called fyatarus, who are humans with the ability to fly and with a penchant for disturbing power relations.

The fyatarus came into their own especially when they sought to expose and vilify the hypocritical, pretentious and perfumed ‘cultured society’ of urban elites. Kanaal Maalshaat (War cry of the beggars), Mausoleum, Fatarur Bombachak and Fyatarur Kumbhipak are the four books that feature fyatarus. In Kangal Malshat, fyatarus work under a even superior set of beings called Choktars to initiate a once in 300 years war against oppression – in this case, an urban guerilla war fought using magic, rusted canons and smelly trash against the police of the CPI(M) led Left Front government.

While his writings had many layers, a particular layer was most cherished and best understood by those who, for long, had a radical critique of the CPI(M) before the year 2000. To them, the CPI(M) had not degenerated, it had always been a degenerate force. There is this particular edge to Nabarun’s work that is almost a private conversation of this political community.

Apart from his Fyataru series, Lubdhak (Bengali name for the dog-like celestial constellation) is a touching characterization of the human urbanity from the standpoint of non-human inhabitants of a city (cats and dogs) – Kolkata, in this case. The insurrection of the dogs of the city and how that unfolds is a searing critique of the anthropocentrism of the modern man (and woman). His other major works like Ei Mrityu Upotyoka Aamar Desh Na, Andho Beral, Halaljhanda o Onyanyo and Herbert have enriched the literature of man, helping many of us to look bottom up between our own legs at the dirt we hide in our pubic creases and then look at ourselves at the mirror, anew.

‘Gachheder ki sheet korchhe emon, Kukurdero ki sheet korche emon, Rasta, cinemahol, tipkol, restora, biuty parlar, Shokoleri ki sheet korche emon Na shudhui amar’  (Are the trees feeling cold like this, are the dogs feeling cold like this, Roads, cinema-halls, tube-wells, restaurants, beauty parlours, Are they all feeling cold like this, Or is it just me?)
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